In a classically west Penwith moment the other month, I got an email from Sara Priddle of the Zennor Wayhouse Museum, telling me about their newly restored 19th-century watermill and the flour they were producing. She had got my name from one kind pasties & cream reader (thanks, if you’re reading), who said – correctly – that it would be right up my street.
I told the story of these accidental millers in the food & drink section of Cornwall Today the other month and thought you might like to read it. If you are sitting comfortably, then I will begin.
In the timeless village of Zennor, Sara and Bob Priddle are quietly busy reviving a long-dormant corner of Cornish history. Ten years ago, the couple left their careers in publishing to purchase Cornwall’s oldest private museum, the Wayside Museum in Zennor, as part of their long-term plan to retire and try their hand at something ‘completely different’. What they couldn’t have predicted when they bought the museum was just how different their new line of work would turn out to be.
‘The snag was that Trewey Mill had not milled since 1858.‘
Finding themselves in possession of a defunct watermill in a dilapidated out-house of the museum – with a crude dirt floor, rotting wood structures and the remains of an old water mill – they set about a painstaking restoration in 2009, determined not only to get the machinery turning again but also to return the watermill as far as possible to how it would have looked and functioned around the time it ceased production. The snag was that Trewey Mill had not milled since 1858.
Undeterred by the enormity and expense of the task at hand (funded without grant subsidy), the Priddles joined the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), consulting its code of conduct, and reading tirelessly around the subject.
They nosed around watermills up and down the country and scoured local literature and artefacts, looking for precedent. The attention to detail undertaken in the renovation is mesmerising: nuts and bolts were custom made by a local blacksmith in a coal-fired forge; parts were faithfully hand-cast in a factory in Birmingham; and a pear tree was even bought in at a cost of £600 to accurately replace the fruitwood that would have been used to make the cogs.
‘We never intended to make flour’, Bob imparts. ‘I just hated having a redundant mill as part of the museum. Every year we’d look at it and it would be even more derelict. So we decided we would grasp the nettle and try and bring it back to life. I worked seven days a week for a year on it, doing most of the work myself, I even lost a stone and a half. To our surprise, when we finally tried it, it worked first time.’
Curious to try out their substantial new piece of kit, the couple went about disinfecting the granite millstones and milling a batch of wholemeal flour. ‘Sara went off and baked a loaf of bread with it,’ says Bob, ‘And it tasted fantastic. We had thought we’d just demonstrate to people how it worked as part of the museum but it turns out there is quite a demand for traditional, stoneground flour, so we started selling it in the shop by the bag. We now mill between 70 and 100 1.5kg bags of flour a week.’
‘Well, when you wake up one morning and you’ve got a watermill in your back garden – what are you going to do?’
The restoration was a demanding, all-encompassing project, but it was also unmistakably a labour of love, and you can’t help but warm to the couple’s endearingly light-hearted approach to their new-found micro-business. Asked how they ended up milling and selling flour, Sara says: ‘Well, when you wake up one morning and you’ve got a watermill in your back garden – what are you going to do?’
‘With no website, no logo and certainly no business plan, this product seems to be the ultimate antidote to mass production.‘
The story of Trewey Mill is enough to engage even the most casual of historians but what, you might ask, of the quality of the flour? The Priddles searched high and low for the best certified organic grain, and miller Bob is constantly monitoring moisture, protein and Hagberg levels (the latter indicating enzyme levels within the grain) – and tinkering with the machinery, making small adjustments to ensure the fineness of the grind.
The result is a beautifully fine, nutty-flavoured flour – nothing added, nothing taken away. Unlike the modern rolling mills used commercially, granite millstones produce virtually no heat – leaving the taste and nutrients of the wheat germ intact. With no website, no logo and certainly no business plan, this product seems to be the ultimate antidote to mass production.
‘In the end, you wouldn’t buy a vintage bus and run a commercial service. The mill has a lot of life in it but it’s a very old piece of equipment.’
‘We’ve started doing farmers’ markets,’ Bob tells me. ‘And we usually sell out of everything we mill. We get bakers calling up about our flour, but I fear we would struggle to fulfil the demand for such a service. In the end, you wouldn’t buy a vintage bus and run a commercial service. The mill has a lot of life in it but it’s a very old piece of equipment – it’s not designed for mass production. It is enough for me that people come in and say they have made a great loaf of bread and ask if we have any more – that gives me great satisfaction.’
At a time when people are clamouring after small-scale, slow-food products and showing unprecedented interest in traditional, artisan food production, this small-scale historical experiment is more timely than the Priddles could have foreseen.
With the Real Bread campaign (www.sustainweb.org/realbread) gathering momentum nationwide, advocating (among other things) the use of stoneground flour, I see the word-of-mouth interest in Trewey Mill continuing apace.
Bob and Sara may not keep up with demand for their simple bags of flour but in a sense that is the very thing that keeps this such a special, local and uniquely vintage product.
You can buy Trewey Mill flour in bags of 1.5kg for £2.99 direct from the Wayside Museum in Zennor; from the Cornish Hen deli in Penzance, Scarlet Wines in Lelant, Trevaskis Farm, the Fore Street Deli in St Ives and Higher Trenowin farm shop in Nancledra; or every other month at Helston farmers’ market.
Hope’s Bread on the Lizard makes her Zennor Loaf using Trewey Mill flour, available from farmers’ markets around the county. http://www.hopesbread.co.uk
Alongside the wheat flour, spelt will also be milled in coming months. Wayside Museum, Old Zennor Street, Zennor, TR26 3DA. Tel. 01736 796945.